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NFL free agency 2021: the five...
American Football

NFL free agency 2021: the five best players available

Cian Fahey
Cian Fahey

23:01 4 Mar 2021

NFL Free Agency in 2021 will be different. COVID-19 has significantly lowered the NFL's salary cap, meaning teams that built their rosters expecting the cap to grow are now struggling. Each team has $180.5 million to spend on players.

Ten teams are already over that number without signing anyone new.

Of those 10 teams, six aren't even close to being cap compliant. The New Orleans Saints have $243 million committed to 57 players on their roster ($63 million over the cap). The Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams are more than $30 million over the cap, while three more teams are more than $10 million over the cap.

They can rework players' contracts to cut some of the fat, but chances are each of those teams is going to get significantly worse this offseason.

At the same time, there are fewer teams with big money available than normal. Only three teams have more than $50 million to spend. There won't be big markets for the best players at every position the way there normally is. The most active team is likely to be the New England Patriots, they have $62 million in space and needs everywhere.

But they also notoriously don't have a starting quarterback yet. If they sign a quarterback in free agency, that will take up a huge chunk of the money they can spend. If they don't sign a quarterback in free agency, they're not in a position to draft someone who can start in 2021. That would mean anyone they sign at other positions would have minimal impact.

The biggest potential free agent this year does happen to be a quarterback and One Bill Belichick would like, too.

October 11, 2020, Arlington, TX, USA: ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 11: Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and Andy Dalton (14) talk prior to the NFL game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys on October 11, 2020 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire) (Credit Image: © Andrew Dieb/Icon SMI via ZUMA Press)

1. Dak Prescott

Former team: Dallas Cowboys

Likely suitors: Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Washington Football Team.

Potential suitors: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins

Had Dak Prescott not broken his ankle early last season, he likely would have been able to command a Patrick Mahomes-like contract on the open market. Prescott may not have the same reputation across the league that Mahomes has, but he was guaranteed to hit the open market if he so chose and on the open market your value multiplies.

Overall, 27-year-old franchise quarterbacks who have both won a lot of games, put up big numbers and proven to be durable simply never hit free agency. The Cowboys franchise-tagged Prescott last year, which paid him $31.5 million. To tag him again this year will cost $37.7 million. The Cowboys don't have that space without making a lot of moves to create it.

Assuming that doesn't happen, Prescott can shift the balance in the AFC or NFC.

Prescott is an exceptionally intelligent and technically-precise pocket passer. Playing behind injured offensive lines so often in Dallas never phased him. He was able to adjust his process in the pocket to get the ball out early when he needed to without becoming jittery when he had time to hold the ball longer. A large percentage of the Cowboys' big plays in the passing game came from Prescott audibling the play.

His pre-snap and post-snap intelligence comes with consistent ball placement and above-average athleticism. The only concern about Prescott moving forward is his ankle injury. You have to assume he's returning in full health to pay him what it will cost to sign him.

Darkhorse options for Prescott are the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins.

The Jets have the second-overall pick and maybe one of the top quarterbacks in the draft if they want one. That is the obvious route to go but there is greater certainty with Prescott. NFL teams typically prefer the allure of the unknown. They hae completely ignored Sam Darnold's failure to convince themselves that Trevor Lawrence is the answer already.

Brian Flores benched Tua Tagovailoa twice during his rookie season. That never happens to top picks. Flores did not even try to pretend it could be ignored.

He has not bought into the quarterback who the Dolphins thought would be their saviour. It would be an aggressive move and a difficult one to work financially, but Prescott would immediately turn the Dolphins into a contender.

Nov 29, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams (71) before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports/Sipa USA

2. Trent Williams

Former Team: San Francisco 49ers

Likely Suitors: Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Potential Suitors: Baltimore Ravens

It went unnoticed last year but the Trent Williams trade was a stroke of genius for the San Francisco 49ers.

He was a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan's offense and proved that he was still at his athletic best after missing a year. Forcing his way out of Washington did not damage his reputation or his performance, setting him up to become the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league this offseason. That price tag will prevent the 49ers from re-signing him.

When the 49ers traded for Williams, they agreed not to franchise tag him.

Williams is unfortunate since he's hitting free agency in a depressed market. He will still likely make big money but maybe will opt for a shorter deal. At 33 years of age, he does not have to worry about his long-term future just yet. Andrew Whitworth is the most recent example of a tackle playing at a high level late into his thirties.

Whitworth guided Jared Goff through the early stages of his career with the Rams. Justin Herbert is a Los Angeles-based quarterback enjoying the early stages of his career.

Herbert was astoundingly good last year. The best rookie quarterback since Andrew Luck, easily. And he was that good while playing behind a limited offensive line. The Chargers traded away Russell Okung for Trai Turner this time last year. They have an opening at left tackle that Williams could easily slide into. He's a better player than Okung and more likely to start 16 games.

A Herbert, Williams, Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams offence would be terrifying for the rest of the AFC.

The Chargers' only concern is that they do not have as much money as other likely suitors. The Jacksonville Jaguars have the most cap space in the league. With Trevor Lawrence inbound, it makes sense for them to go all-out after the best left tackle in the NFL. The Jaguars former starting left tackle, Cam Robinson, is a free agent.

Orlando Brown Jr. has been the Baltimore Ravens' starting right tackle for a few years now. He is a very good starting right tackle and an ideal fit in the Ravens offence. But he got the opportunity to play left tackle after Ronnie Stanley was injured last year, so now he wants to leave to play left tackle elsewhere. If the Ravens trade him away, they could look to make an aggressive move for Williams.

Williams could play tackle or guard in Baltimore. He has that dynamism as a run blocker that the Ravens value and fits the profile of someone they would go out of their way to sign. He could propel the offense to a new level, which they desperately need rather than relying on Lamar Jackson to carry an inadequate supporting cast.

Feb 10, 2021; Tampa Bay, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett arrives for a boat parade to celebrate victory in Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports/Sipa USA

3. Shaquil Barrett

Former team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Likely Suitors: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins.

Potential Suitors: New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts

Shaquil Barrett is going to get (over)paid.

If J.J. Watt can get $23 million despite having no production last year, Barrett is about to break the bank.

He is an exceptional pass rusher and a consistent difference-maker on defense. He was a key piece in the defense that brought a Super Bowl ring to Tampa Bay. When Tom Brady was throwing interceptions during the playoff run, it was Barrett and his fellow defensive linemen harassing opposing quarterbacks so that the mistakes went unpunished.

But that's the problem.

Super Bowl teams are always stripped of a few pieces and those players are historically overpaid. Saying you won a Super Bowl allows you to push up your own price. Teams are willing to pay it in search of that mystical winning formula. Barrett is a very, very good player. But he's also an individual defender. As a pass rusher, he can have a big impact on a game but not as much as a great offensive player.

Paying him more than $20 million a year, which is likely where his number will wind up, is nothing short of crazy. Every year there are a handful of deals that just look wrong and then prove to be wrong. And those deals are more often than not made by the same teams.

Enter the New York Jets.

It has been a long time since the New York Jets had an edge rusher of consequence. Robert Saleh became the Jets' new head coach because of his success with the San Francisco 49ers defencse. That defense was built on having four overwhelming pass rushers on the defensive line. The Jets have good interior defenders but nothing on the edges.

With $75 million in cap space, it is inevitable that this new regime overspends to bring in some defensive starters. You can assume that Richard Sherman will wind up there too.

The Miami Dolphins have enough money to compete for Barrett's signature and they desperately need someone like him on their defensive line. They have a great secondary but created pressure last year by blitzing all the time. They don't have an edge rusher who can win one-on-one. Adding Barrett could unlock Christian Wilkins on the interior as well.

Both the Patriots and the Colts could desperately use Barrett to upgrade their defences and both can afford him. It's just unlikely that either front office is aggressive enough to get him.

January 03, 2021: Chicago, Illinois, U.S. - Packers #33 Aaron Jones runs with the ball during the NFL Game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. Photographer: Mike Wulf(Credit Image: © Mike Wulf/CSM/Sipa USA)

4. Aaron Jones

Former Team: Green Bay Packers

Likely Suitors: Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Washington Football Team

Potential Suitors: New York Jets

Aaron Jones is an outstanding football player who will upgrade any offense that he joins. He is one of the best runners in the league with the ability to contribute heavily in the passing game. He, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams were the foundation of the offense in Green Bay. Without him, the Packers' offense is going to take a massive step back.

The Packers need him but they're one of the teams in cap hell and they drafted his replacement last year in the second round. They also drafted Aaron Rodgers' replacement in the first round, it wasn't a good offseason for the Packers last year.

Leaving Green Bay is obvious but there are not obvious destinations either. Most teams are happy with their running back tandems and those who are not won't have the cap space to sign him. The Jaguars make sense just because they can afford the luxury and even though James Robinson was very good last year, Jones is someone they could build their offence around.

The Miami Dolphins have enough cap space for one big addition. Adding a running back would take huge pressure off of the passing game and perfectly complement the suffocating defense Brian Flores' unit plays. Ron Rivera has similar motivations for bringing Jones to Washington and he has more cap space than his counterpart in Miami.

Again, the Jets are always liable to do something dumb. But they already went down the running back route with Le'Veon Bell and quickly regretted it. You cannot add a great running back to a bad offense and expect it to make any tangible difference.

November 8, 2020, Jacksonville, FL, USA: JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 08: Houston Texans Wide Receiver Will Fuller (15) runs with the ball for a 77-yard touchdown with Jacksonville Jaguars Cornerback CJ Henderson (23) in pursuit during the game between the Houston Texans and the Jacksonville Jaguars on November 8, 2020 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire) (Credit Image: © David Rosenblum/Icon SMI via ZUMA Press)

5. Will Fuller

Former Team: Houston Texans

Likely Suitors: Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots

Potential Suitors: Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens

A bad injury history and a suspension to start next season will impact Will Fuller's market. Not the way they would another player though. Fuller has game-changing speed. His very presence in your offense changes how the defense plays you. If you do not have a safety over the top, it's a touchdown no matter where on the field the ball is snapped.

He was the perfect complement to DeAndre Hopkins in Houston and if the Arizona Cardinals had not thrown so much money at J.J. Watt, they could have reunited the two. Kyler Murray would have loved that.

Every quarterback who plays with Fuller will love him. He's easy to throw to because of his speed setting up his shorter and intermediate routes. When he's open deep, he's not just open, he's wide open. The quarterback doesn't have to think about ball placement. Just throw it as far as you can in the general area and Fuller will go and get it.

That is why he is here instead of Allen Robinson or Juju Smith-Shuster. Robinson has been getting a pass for some poor play in Chicago because of the bad offense he is in while Smith-Shuster is exceptional but does not have this singular, game-changing trait. If the Green Bay Packers could afford him, Matt LaFleur's offense would be the perfect fit.

Instead, the Colts can go to his familiar face as an upgrade over T.Y. Hilton, who is also a free agent, while the Patriots have made it known they will be upgrading their receiver corps this offseason. Marvin Jones is expected to be a target for New England, he and Fuller would perfectly complement each other.

The Cleveland Browns have a returning Odell Beckham but Fuller would be a perfect fit in Kevin Stefanski's offense. He could either be the third option over Donovan Peoples-Jones or complement Landry and Beckham by rotating in and out of base sets.

Staying in the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens can likely afford one big outside free-agent addition. They desperately need another wide receiver as neither Marquise Brown nor Miles Boykin have lived up to expectations so far.

Fuller would comfortably be the best wide receiver Lamar Jackson has ever played alongside.

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Read more about

Aaron Jones Brian Flores Dak Prescott Green Bay Packers Lamar Jackson Matt LaFleur Miami Dolphins NFL New England Patriots New Orlean Saints New York Jets Orlando Brown Jr. Patrick Mahomes Sam Darnold San Francisco 49ers Shaquil Barrett T.Y. Hilton Tampa Bay Buccaneers Trent Williams Trevor Lawrence Tua Tagovailoa Will Fuller

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